Good news for hikers and bikers in Kazakhstan’s business hub as a local beverage company plans to build 25 kilometers of foot and cycle paths into the hills to mark its 25th anniversary.
Kazakhstan’s Raimbek Bottlers, which markets its drinks range under the Juicy, Palma and Ainalaiyn brands, is stumping the cash to build car-free access to the most popular out-of-town getaway spots. Once the path is completed, people will be able to get to the Medeu ice skating rink and Shymbulak ski resort from Kok-Tobe, a hilltop recreation area in Almaty, under their own steam.
“We want to give these paths to the city so that you don’t have to go by transport to Medeu or Shymbulak, but, for example, you can go on foot up to Kok-Tobe and then use the paths. Part of the path will be for trekking and the other for mountain bikes,” Raimbek Batalov, chairman of Raimbek Holdings, told Kapital.kz.
Kazakhstan has on paper been making bold efforts to nudge their automobile-addicted population onto their bicycles by building dedicated paths (albeit not always very good ones). And there is health to consider. Almaty is plagued by appallingly polluted air because over-reliance on cars, which also seems to be contributing to a burgeoning obesity crisis. Research by the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition has found that 30.6 percent of women and 36.8 percent of men in Kazakhstan are overweight.
So Batalov’s cycle and trekking path could not have come at a more apposite time.
Kazakhstan’s parliament startled a generally unflappable public this week with the announcement it was looking to stock its cellar with 11,000 bottles of wine, vodka, cognac, champagne and whisky.
The administration at the legislature has now hastily rowed back on the news, however, explaining away the figure as a human error.
News website Informburo.kz reported April 13 that the office managing parliament’s affairs had published a statement saying it was “studying the market of alcoholic products” and inviting companies producing strong spirits to get in touch.
The statement elaborated further, listing in detail the alcohol apparently required: 5,000 bottles of vodka, 200 bottles of wine (red and white), 2,550 bottles of cognac, 3,550 bottles of whisky and a paltry 100 bottles of champagne.
In evident mischievous mood, Informburo.kz reminded its readers of another recent scandal involving the country’s hardworking lawmakers. Several local media outlets reported that newly elected deputies in the process of finding apartments to live in had allegedly been been up in hotel rooms costing 120,000 tenge ($350) nightly. Parliament administrators also scotched that tittle-tattle, insisting that the deputies were in fact staying in 29,000 tenge a night rooms.
To be fair to the MPs, a scan through prices on booking.com suggests the economic crisis gripping Kazakhstan has taken its toll on Astana’s hotel sector. Premium double rooms at the swanky Rixos President Hotel Astana, for example, have been slashed this week from more than $340 to a mere $120 or so.
A rally held this week in front of the mayor’s office in Almaty is a fresh reminder of how property continues to be a generator of public discontent in Kazakhstan.
Complaints this time revolved around a case of realty fraud perpetrated by a woman called Firuza Ordabayeva, who posed as an Almaty city hall employee offering citizens cheap apartments as part of a purported government program.
Ordabayeva was sentenced to six and a half years in jail last week for the scheme, which prosecutors say saw her swindling unsuspecting hopeful home-buyers of $5 million. The 20 or so families that mustered outside the Mayor Baurzhan Baybek’s offices on April 12 are now fearful they will be evicted and left on the streets.
News website Ratel.kz explained in its account of Ordabayeva’s scheme that people were defrauded in a number of ways. The schemes involved committing buyers to paying down deposits against the promise of preferential terms further down the line, only for monthly repayment bills to be steeply hiked without warning.
And since people typically moved into the apartments after transferring their deposits, they tried to continue keeping up payments to avoid eviction.
“We gave money and immediately we were given keys from the apartment, did some repairs [in the apartment] and lived there,” one home-buyer, Dilnar Insenova, told Ratel.kz.
The victims of the fraud are now appealing to the Almaty mayor to intervene and make sure they are not evicted.
With Nagorno Karabakh's worst violence in two decades having abated, Armenia and Azerbaijan are taking stock of how loyally their allies and partners responded to the crisis. And in most cases, both sides have found the responses wanting.
The major outside player in the conflict remains Russia, but its actions and the subsequent reactions followed a well-worn path: Armenia complained that its ostensible ally was providing weapons to its enemy, Russia justified that policy in terms of a balance of power, and nothing concrete changed.
While Armenia is a treaty ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and gets discounted Russian weaponry in return, oil-rich Azerbaijan has rearmed itself, with the aim of retaking its lost territory, buying most of its arms from the very same Russia.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited the region at the end of last week, part of a Russian diplomatic blitz that seems to have succeeded in tamping down the violence for the time being. And both officials made it clear that Russia did not intend to change its policy of supplying both sides.
“If we consider for a moment that Russia gave up that role, we all will see clearly that such place won’t remain vacant. Weapons will be bought from other countries, and that won’t make weapons less deadly. However, it could ruin the current balance to some extent,” Medvedev said. "Everything is done in compliance with the contracts. Both these countries are our strategic partners," Rogozin said.
Demand for old-fashioned mobile phones has surged in Kazakhstan following a recent ban on government employees bringing smartphones into the workplace.
As of April 1, civil servants have been forbidden from taking any phones able to capture photos, record audio or send and receive Bluetooth messages to work. The ban was primarily motivated over concerns about the growing amount of classified information allegedly being leaked out and posted on social media websites.
“This rule is being applied completely in the Interior Ministry,” said Saltanat Azirbek, a spokesperson for the ministry in Almaty. “Official documents should in no instance be publicly circulated since they could fall into the hands of criminals, and people of ill-intent could use them to their own ends.”
Some Kazakhstani government workers have long been setting the example. While roaming the halls of parliament, Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov recently showed off his own phone, a vintage Nokia model that he said he has been using for the past 10 years.
Others are less impressed and have taken to social media to debate the merits of the new prohibition. The consensus is that the rules are unfair since most use their smartphones mainly to communicate with colleagues, relatives and friends, not to pass on secret state information.
The general public is even more caustic in its assessment. Shavkat Sabirov, head of Internet Association of Kazakhstan, noted that refraining from the use of modern telephones in an age of rapid technological development is decidedly regressive.
There is mixed news from Kazakhstan’s economy as consumers contend with a continued leap in prices for basic goods, while the national currency has returned to a stability of old, albeit with some help.
News agency Kazakh-Zerno reported earlier this month on some Economy Ministry comparisons of prices between March 2015 and the month before.
Sugar went up by 41 percent, butter by 24 percent, coffee and tea by 23 percent, seafood by 21 percent and bread by 20 percent. Meat has remained fairly stable, rising by a modest 4 percent.
In January, the government decided to stop subsidizing the production of bread as budget-cutting measure. Officials said that would save the treasury around 7-8 billion tenge ($21 million) annually.
The government did decide, however, to continue spending around 1.5 billion tenge per year on containing the cost of the cheapest types of bread as a way to prevent hardship for the most economically vulnerable sections of the population.
The devaluation of the national currency has also made it punitively pricey for Kazakhstanis to travel abroad.
KTK TV channel reported that in March airline tickets went up by 11 percent and train tickets increased 6 percent.
Even getting sick is becoming unaffordable. The average cost of medicine has increased by 9.5 percent over the past month, KTK reported, citing official data.
City hall in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial hub, is leading by example as it attempts to convert the city’s petrol-heads to eco-friendly bicycles.
Timur Bazarbaev, a besuited city hall official, took to two wheels for Almaty TV’s cameras on April 4, following Mayor Baurzhan Baybek’s call to officials in February to leave their cars at home and get on their bicycles to set an example for the good citizens of Almaty.
Bazarbaev recently started cycling to work after being inspired by his colleagues and getting fed up of sitting in Almaty’s notorious traffic jams.
“It’s a little bit hard,” he admitted to Almaty TV. “Our terrain is mountainous with many ups and downs, but overall I believe that it’s convenient, effective and useful.”
Cycling is increasing in popularity in Almaty, but the car still accounts for the majority of commutes.
In recent years, attempts have been made to unclog the city’s main thoroughfares by encouraging more journeys by bicycle. Since 2010 more than 30 kilometers of dedicated bicycle lanes have been laid in the city and Almaty has even introduced a bike share scheme similar to London’s Boris bikes.
In a bid to encourage more pedal power, on April 10 Almaty’s main streets will be turned over to cyclists with a mass cycle ride planned.
While it is often noted that the citizens of Kazakhstan are averse to protesting, only the brave would try to meddle with their mobile phones.
Consider the case of mobile telephone provider ALTEL, which has been assailed by disgruntled subscribers in recent days over complaints that they reneged on agreements.
ALTEL, a daughter company of state-owned Kazakhtelecom, was the first mobile communications company to enter the market in Kazakhstan in 1994. In 2010, it was first to introduce 3G, and two years later it brought in the LTE standard, which is usually marketed under the 4G brand.
In November, the company announced it was set to merge with Swedish mobile services provider Tele2, which also has a presence on Kazakhstan’s market. According to a report by news website Informburo.kz, the merger would have created a single company with a 7 million-strong client base — ALTEL previously had 2 million subscribers. That would account for 20 percent of the mobile communications market in Kazakhstan. The new entity will also control more than 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s mobile Internet market.
But big is not always beautiful, as ALTEL customers have learned.
ALTEL’s main selling point was that it provided unlimited Internet packages, which proved hugely popular.
In a move that has angered many clients, however, ALTEL on April 4 announced that it was scrapping its unlimited 4G offers and that it would now provide a limited 30 gigabytes monthly. ALTEL has defended decision by stating that it was forced to take the decision because of the numerous complaints about low speeds.
Among the huge spectrum of international figures brought low by the Panama Papers document leak is the grandson of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In a highly detailed account published on April 4, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reveals that Nurali Aliyev’s offshore interests included two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. The 31-year even had a 23-meter-long pleasure yacht registered in the BVI, although alas for the presidential grandson, he never did get to sail the seas on the ill-fated vessel.
As OCCRP remarked with relish, the revelations are particularly egregious considering how Nazarbayev has, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, pontificated in the past against the practice of salting away riches in offshore jurisdictions.
“You shouldn’t hide your money somewhere over the hill. Keep it here. Just look, all these offshore being opened up over the hill, they are going to shame everybody,” Nazarbayev prophesied, accurately as it turned out, in 2013. “If you make money, keep it in Kazakhstan. Live here, build a future for your children here
OCCRP’s account begins in September 2014, when BVI-registered company Alba International Holdings, whose only business was listed as “[holding] a bank account in Cyprus,” was recorded as getting a new owner, another BVI company called Invigorate Group Ltd. Although little is known about either company other than that, data in the files obtained by the OCCRP offer up one useful little nugget.
Kazakhstan’s high-profile world champion boxer, Gennady Golovkin, has been made an ambassador for Astana’s EXPO-2017 in a move to improve the image of the graft-plagued project.
Golovkin, boxing’s undisputed middleweight champion, was anointed as an official ambassador for the international exhibition, which will be held in Astana in 2017, by President Nursultan Nazarbayev during his visit to Washington on March 31.
Golovkin, known as GGG and rated one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers, is one of Kazakhstan’s best-known sports exports. He was on the party list for the ruling Nur Otan party in March’s election along with many other celebrities, but did not make the final cutinto parliament. His presence will boost the global image of EXPO-2017, which has been rocked by a huge corruption scandal.
A high-profile trial began in Astana on March 18 with Talgat Yermegiyayev, former chairman of the Astana EXPO-2017 company organizing the exhibition, accused along with 22 others of stealing in excess of 10 billion tenge (US$29 million at the current exchange rates) from the construction funds.
EXPO-2017 has also been landed with budget cuts — with Kazakhstan in the throes of economic crisis, some one-tenth of the originally expected total expenditure of $3 billion has been shaved off the budget.
In August, a new team headed by former Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov was parachuted in to knock the project back into shape. But his leadership has come in for criticism from insiders linked to the project.